BRADFORD, Vermont (STPNS) -- BENTON?According to Maureen Clark of Clark?s Trading Post in North Woodstock, Maxine Tyler is Clark?s Official Bear Knitter. That?s a title not many people can claim.

?She?s a wonderful knitter,? Clark said in a recent interview, ?Everyone loves her work.?

Now, it?s true that 79-year old Tyler of Benton has knit at least 30 Irish Knit sweaters. ?So far,? Tyler adds. And it?s true that she won second place for her knitting in a National Grange Needlework Contest in 1969. And its true that there?s hardly a knitting or crocheting pattern she can?t conquer.

All of these are noteworthy, but they were merely preparations for the most distinctive challenge and privilege of her knitting career?knitting mittens with yarn made from bear hair.

Since last summer, Tyler has knit five pairs of mittens and one hat from yarn that has come from the bears at Clark?s Trading Post. Currently she is working on a toddler sweater made from the same chocolate brown yarn.    

?The bears are paid volunteers,? explained Clark. ?They will permit the grooming because they enjoy the food, extra attention and kind words they receive. To them it?s like a trip to the hairdresser, and they get to eat some favorite foods at the same time.?

The best time to collect the fiber is when the bears are shedding during June and July, Clark says. Once a sufficient amount of fiber is collected, it is labeled with the individual bear?s name and then sent off to be cleaned, washed and spun. The spinner keeps track of which bear the spun yarn came from, and she labels the yarn with the bear?s name before mailing it to Tyler.

Clark has been combing the bears? hair for several years, but it wasn?t until recently that Tyler, who has worked at the Trading Post for 10 years, became their Official Bear Knitter. Clark was familiar with some of Tyler?s other needlework skills, and as soon as she learned that she also knit, Clark immediately asked, ?Would you be interested in doing knitting with bear yarn??

?It would be something different,? Tyler replied. ?I?d be willing to try.?

Tyler is always eager to take on a needlework challenge. ?I like challenges,? she explains. ?If it?s got a different stitch, I say, ?Mother I?ve got to make it. I?ve got to see how it?s done.??

Tyler lives with her 96-year-old mother, Kate Goodwin, who is also a skillful needleworker. Although her mother taught her how to crochet and embroider, it was her grandmother, Gertrude Goodwin, who taught her to knit more than 65 years ago.

And so Tyler took on the challenge of knitting with a totally new yarn fashioned from both the outer and inner layers of the bears? coats.

She talked about her first reaction to the bear yarn. ?It was different, but I don?t mind it. It?s smooth; it goes along easy,? she said. ?I kind of like it, because it?s unique.?

Tyler paused, trying to decide how to describe the feel of the yarn. ?Not exactly fuzzy, but more hairy. It makes a thicker, warmer mitten than Red Heart yarn.? One draw back, is that the completed items are somewhat scratchy, Tyler admits. Clark had a fleece lining put into the hat Tyler knit last year.

When the projects are completed, two tags are added. One tag says ?Hand-knit by Maxine Tyler.? The second tag identifies which bear the yarn came from. Most of the items that Tyler has knit have come from 17-year-old bear Victoria Rix.

?She?s a prolific producer of fur,? Clark explained. ?Victoria?s wooly undercoat is so thick, and the guard hairs are so long, that she needs considerable help during the shedding process to get down to her new summer coat.?

Other bears have also contributed their hair, including two-year-old Pemi and 22-year-old Moxie who is retired from the shows at Clark?s.

Since 1949, the Clark family has been delighting tourists with trained bear shows featuring unmuzzled and unleashed black bears. Their bears are gently trained and lovingly cared for throughout their lifetime at the Trading Post in North Woodstock.

?Anyone who sees it is amazed that bear hair can be washed and combed and go to the spinners and then see the results,? Tyler said.

?I do four-needle mittens,? she explained. The yarn is thick, so Tyler had to go down two sizes smaller than the pattern requires or ?they?d be gigantic.? She commented on a large pair she made for a man in Michigan. ?It was awfully pretty,? she said. It was dark brown, like dark chocolate.?

All of Tyler?s former projects were made with 2-ply yarn with two stitches making a quarter-inch. But the cardigan sweater is made with 1-ply yarn from Ursula, a different bear. ?I was amazed that this one ply doesn?t break. I thought it would, but it doesn?t,? Tyler said.

In addition to knitting and working at Clark?s, she keeps busy in other ways. She is the treasurer for the Benton School District, as she has been for 41 years. She has been a member of the Mt. Hope Grange in Landaff for more than 60 years. Last January she resigned as the Grange treasurer after having held that office for more than 46 years. She also makes and sells tatted notepaper, as much as 88 dozen a year. On top of that, last year she knit three youth-sized sweaters through Guidepost Magazine for needy children. This year she plans to make ?as many sweaters as I can.?                    

But if any one has their hopes up for owning a pair of the bear hair mittens, you?ll have to come up with something more valuable than money. The items from Clark?s bears are not for sale. According to Clark, they are used primarily as gifts to people who have played a special role in the lives of the bears.